Getting Schooled

A group of former condo owners say SMU defrauded them of their homes to make way for the new Bush library.

Would SMU inform President Bush that people were still living at one of the potential locations for his library? SMU's attorney Leon Bennett would later say in a deposition that the school planned to tell George and Laura Bush "the opportunity to acquire those properties was just that, the opportunity to acquire it. And there was no reason to believe that the property was totally unavailable under any circumstances."
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SMU's purchase of its first units at University Gardens by April 1999, within weeks of Bush's announcement that he was forming an exploratory committee to run for president, seems at best coincidental, unless viewed through the prism of some of its former residents.

"SMU's plan all along — starting from the time Bush announced he was running for president, was to buy up our property, take it over and tear it down," Gary Vodicka says. "It was a hostile takeover, and they had to do it to get the Bush library."

Attorney Gary Vodicka is now suing his old alma mater, alleging SMU defrauded him and other residents of the University Gardens in its plan to acquire land to build the Bush library.
Mark Graham
Attorney Gary Vodicka is now suing his old alma mater, alleging SMU defrauded him and other residents of the University Gardens in its plan to acquire land to build the Bush library.
The empty site in front of the SMU campus is where the University Gardens condominiums sat for nearly 40 years until being demolished to make room for the 25-acre George W. Bush Presidential Center.
Mark Graham
The empty site in front of the SMU campus is where the University Gardens condominiums sat for nearly 40 years until being demolished to make room for the 25-acre George W. Bush Presidential Center.

Even if SMU didn't set its sights on the Bush library until after Bush's election, as it maintains, the school's Board of Trustees, which then included Dick Cheney and Ray Hunt, had already considered, during a December 1998 board meeting, how SMU could acquire University Gardens. It was simple, really. In a sworn deposition given two years later, Gerald Turner conceded that the board discussed that if it acquired 75 percent of the condo's residences, "we knew we could require the final 25 percent to sell their homes."

Three months later, SMU, through its real estate arm, Peruna Properties, began purchasing units at the complex; and by August 1999, angry residents felt their homes were in jeopardy, even after receiving assurances from SMU attorney Leon Bennett that SMU wanted to be a good neighbor and "contribute to University Gardens."

Just a few weeks after the Bennett meeting, the homeowners association board passed a new bylaw aimed at SMU, which prohibited any one entity from owning more than 10 percent of the total residences. In December 1999, the association sent SMU a cease-and-desist letter forbidding it to close on any more units. Two months later, Peruna Properties sued the homeowners association, which, in turn, filed a countersuit, claiming that SMU "has engaged in a covert operation to obtain the University Gardens condominium complex."

The association alleged that SMU's president and Board of Trustees set about to acquire a 75 percent controlling interest in the building, realizing that under the bylaws, it could pressure the remaining residents to sell. Part of SMU's scheme, the association claimed, was to place students in university-owned units to intentionally ruin the peaceful enjoyment of the complex by its elderly residents in an attempt to run them off.

If that was the intention, it worked. Many of the residents loathed their student-neighbors. In fact, when Bennett said at the meeting, "We hold our students to a standard of behavior," the crowd interrupted him with howls of derisive laughter.

"We know how SMU students are," one member of the audience told Bennett. "We have enough of them, and we don't want any more of them."

You couldn't blame the residents. In July 2000, an SMU-leasing administrator testified that SMU student-tenants had hung, on their balcony, the skin of a slaughtered lamb, a satanic mask and paintings stained with blood — "items usually used in devil worship," according to a police report. Other students were drunk and disorderly, observed urinating on flower beds at 2 a.m.

According to a March 2006 article in the Houston Press's sister paper the Dallas Observer, lawyers for University Gardens deposed SMU President Turner twice, seeming almost as interested in challenging the ethics of SMU's actions as its legal position: During Turner's second deposition, one attorney for the complex asked him: "When you left the meeting of the Board of Trustees in December 1998, did you personally believe that SMU could be in a position to force elderly residents at University Gardens who did not want to move from their homes?"

Turner replied, "We knew we could require the final 25 percent to sell their homes to us regardless of what their demographics might be."

Later in the deposition, a lawyer asked him if he "ever heard the phrase, 'Thou shall not covet thy neighbor's house'?"

Turner rightly noted that the passage came from the Book of Exodus. The lawyer then followed up by asking if any of the trustees, who had attended the December board meeting, ever worried that the school might look as if "we're coveting our neighbor's property."

Turner said: "It was never discussed in that, because as we have discussed before, there is always an argument on decisions that have ethical implications to them. And the question is, is it ethical for the institution, for SMU not to try to look for the betterment of its future?"

After a year and a half of litigation, the parties settled their dispute: The homeowners association agreed to withdraw the 10 percent rule. In return, residents had the opportunity to sell to SMU at a rate of $75 a square foot — a price some thought was unreasonably low for a residential property with a Park Cities address.

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